In Conversation with Riham Isaac: Stuck In Corona Limbo, the Palestinian Artist Is Still Seeking Answers About Love

She came to London in the hope of performing and developing her one woman’s show as part of an annual festival that celebrates Arab women artists; but, now, weeks later, she finds herself stuck in Corona limbo, unable to return. Riham Isaac is the 36-year-old Palestinian multi-disciplinary performance artist whose great work over the years includes co-directing a play with Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle in collaboration with Banksy that took place in Bethlehem.

When Isaac came in early March, it was at the invitation of the Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival that features the creative output of Arab women from the Middle East and North Africa region and its diaspora. It was to perform her latest solo piece titled ‘Another Lover’s Discourse’ and to seek the audience’s feedback and active participation in a workshop by giving them a questionnaire asking for their views on love to help further shape her project.

Fortunately the performance went ahead and was a success with an almost full house at East London’s Rich Mix venue. But then within a few short days the city went into lockdown and much of the AWAN scheduled programme had to be cancelled. Still determined to hold also her planned workshop, she managed to conduct it via the Zoom online app and did get some insight from participants. But ever since then, she hasn’t been able to go back to Palestine to get on with her life; and, although she is in a safe place, she is beginning to feel rather homesick.

Another Lover’s Discourse: Photo Credit Tara Rooney

I got in touch with Isaac recently for two reasons. Firstly, I am in awe of her quest to investigate that awesome, gigantic and fluid thing called love from a Middle Eastern woman’s perspective and wanted to learn more about her artistic repertoire: and, secondly, I was concerned for her welfare being away from all that is familiar and waiting, like her family, friends and the Art Salon which she runs as an arts space for the community in her grandmother’s house in her hometown of Beit Sahour.

She was kind enough to respond.

Nahla Ink: First of all, are you somewhere safe during this Corona lockdown? When were you due back home and how does it feel to now be staying put in London?

Isaac: I was due to return on 6 April and have been trying ever since to rebook my ticket but it is not happening. I am not sure now if I will be able to go home for another month. It is tough to be stuck during such a crisis and it is the uncertainty that is the most difficult thing to deal with. I am somehow safe but not too comfortable; I miss my family, my familiar things, my privacy, I am feeling alone sometimes. There are also obligations like your work that you need to think of so it is not easy but what can you do! I am just hoping soon we will find a way to get all stuck Palestinians back to their homes!!

Nahla Ink: Having attended both the AWAN performance of ‘Another Lover’s Discourse’ and also joined in your workshop, I see that humour is a major element in what you do. Tell me some more about this.

Isaac: I am inspired to make work that is deeply connected to the authentic self. This is a method I both use in my productions and workshops. Playfulness, humour and spontaneity are all ways through creativity and help you to release and get out of your comfort zone. It is okay to be a fool and I use this a lot as a tool. What I am trying to avoid is the critical mind, the right and wrong in the creative process, at least in the beginning; and, then, of course later you can restructure and think of it with your analytical mind.

Another Lover’s Discourse: Photo Credit Tara Rooney

Nahla Ink: You seem to be at ease in different artistic roles, including being a director, an actress, a singer, dancer and an arts teacher. What led you to become a performance artist and what have been the highlights of your career so far?

Isaac: I think I was meant to become a performance artist, because when I first joined a theatre club during my undergraduate studies – when I was in fact studying Physiotherapy – I felt completely at ease and in my element. I had to learn a lot but I continued with it even after I graduated from university and went on to become a professional actress working with different theatre companies in Palestine.

I would say the highlight of my career was coming to London to study at Goldsmith for an MA in Performance during 2012-2013. It crafted my talent, offered me new tools, took me out of my comfort zone and I was able to look at my work in a new way. I realised that I quite like to create multi disciplinary works using all my talents, like singing, dancing, visuals and video. I also started to work independently and tackling issues that I found deeply embedded within me.

Nahla Ink: Does your title refer your audience to the classic book by Roland Barthes titled ‘A Lover’s Discourse’? Were you at all influenced by it?

Isaac: When I started my research about LOVE I found myself stumbling upon lots of thoughts, images and ideas; but then, I also found it difficult to express it in words. It seemed like a hard task but then there was the drive within me to explore this theme. There are also two aspects involved: firstly is how do you write about love and describe it; and, then secondly, how do you reveal both the lightness of the topic and the darkness as well? It is not a Cinderella story.

Another Lover’s Discourse: Photo Credit Tara Rooney

So I came across ‘A Lover’s Discourse’ by Barthes which became a huge inspiration for my piece as it allowed me to dig deeper into that question of how to write about love. To quote Barthes: “To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive.”

Nahla Ink: Your play is also very much about love in the way that an Arab society thinks about it. The script and the visuals of your performance also bring to life some of the old Egyptian films with the music and all the romance of an era gone by. So what is that love and how are you challenging it?

Isaac: I come from a society where certain roles are imposed on both men and women. For example, there is the idea that the man is the one who chooses his wife; or, also, the view that the man is wanted more if he is a player and tough, whilst the woman has to be a lady and act the good girl.

Another Lover’s Discourse: Photo Credit Tara Rooney

There are certain cultural expectations that we take upon ourselves as Arab women and we don’t even know from where this behaviour comes from. So I refer to the classical Egyptian films where you can see it visually how these archetypes are and how they have been incorporated in our tradition as Arabs and that impact on our psychology. But then my work also reflects on the universal dynamics of love and relationships that are relevant to the Western viewer as well.

Nahla Ink: Any thoughts on love in times of Corona?

Isaac: Well it is tough to be alone during these times and lucky are those who are with their loved ones. But, then again, it might be challenging to be with your partner as well. However, I do think it is definitely an opportunity to reflect on your status and to deepen your relationships whether you are single or with someone. Maybe we can all connect more to who we are and what we want from Love. I don’t know but that during difficult times, we all definitely need to reach out to the ones we care about, be they our partner, friends, or family!

Nahla Ink: Lastly, I know how keen you are to get people to engage with your project by offering their unique ideas about love that will help you shape the final work of ‘Another Lover’s Discourse’. How can they help and connect?

Isaac: I would like people to answer two questions mainly that I will then reflect upon and use in a creative way towards the finished work. These two questions are: Will we even know how to Love? How do we learn love?

If you wish to respond to Isaac’s questions, please message her via Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/rihamisaac/

For more on Riham Isaac: https://www.rihamisaac.com/

For more on the AWAN Festival: https://www.awan.org.uk/

 

 

Portions of Humanity: Essay on Ahmed Farid’s Artwork

Nahla Ink is happy to share this deep meditative essay on Ahmed Farid’s artwork by Diego Faa.

Ahmed Farid’s artwork is featured on Nahla Ink Online Journal throughout the month of April 2020.

Guest Post: Diego Faa

From his very first formulations of pictorial research, the art of Ahmed Farid has staged a closely-confined and relentless conflict between the attempt at complete elimination of the figurative and the symbolically fierce resistance of his own cultural roots of expressionist stamp. Nevertheless, this structural feature of much of his production should not be read as an unresolved issue within Farid’s universe: on the contrary it is the essence of the same, the generative thrust behind every single one of his artistic creations.

What we have then is not two different paths, but a differently parallel itinerary which can consistently open up towards multiple stylistic and technical possibilities. Moreover, being born in Egypt, growing up with American cultural mythology, travelling through the world and being penetrated by the explosion of avant-garde art history movements can plausibly lead to such a
confrontation-clash with one’s own nature.

Indeed, both as a man and as an artist, Ahmed Farid is influenced by this formative and chronologically dissociated melting-pot which manages to combine figurative echoes drawn from the experience of Gazebia Sirry with compositional reminiscences that look to Nicholas de Staël and explosions of gestural colour influenced by the work of de Kooning filtered through the itineraries of Adel el Siwi.

What Farid implements before the white canvas is a continual balancing of portions of cultural awareness. This is a staging of his entire experience – the life path first and art afterwards – that transcends technique to achieve a full and total personalisation of making art.

Within this dialectic the elimination of the figurative stroke is hence not experienced by Farid as a conquest connected with the indissoluble twentieth-century dichotomy between mimesis and reality, but as the assertion of a pictorial autonomy capable of projecting only itself, devoid of all belonging. This path, cleared of dogmatic obstacles, restores a strong sense of freedom to his art.

The absence of an immediate and univocal responsibility transforms reality into visual experience, into poetry balanced between the spiritual and material physicality. The dreamlike and sometimes disturbing quality of some of his works celebrates an excited creative debate within the artist. This may be resolved in an explosion of colour – or in the absence of it – which starts from a fixed point and is propagated, expanding to fill the entire canvas. In a chromatic courtship, the shades come close and reciprocally balance each other without ever overlapping.

The subject of the works is never a fixed image but a gestural automatism, an evolving flow that merely hints at reality. From this perspective, the sign becomes rational transcription in a succession of stains, clots of matter and emotional writing. Order makes way for an apparent disorder, pursuing a logic that is defined, within the compositional tangibility, in a stylistic deformation conceived to reflect a mood of absence and of the persistent meshing of distance from the figurative and its evocation in abstract terms.

The shapes, that are no more than sketched or even whispered, appear unstable as if awaiting a different dimension, an interior space devoid of narrative. The apparent anxieties make way for feverish explosions of inner peace in a physical world that is scarcely able to contain the imaginative enormity of Ahmed Farid’s work.

The large-scale works in particular impress on the observer a sense of sublime contemplation, an invitation to venture into the disturbing meanders of one’s own unconscious. Using grounds of variably even colour, the artist concentrates on a labour of fragmentary brushstrokes and material residues that emerge as symbolic hostages in the precarious tangle of the magmatic colourings.

This sort of stylistic metaphor yields canvases loaded with thick, at times almost creamy paint, where  the crowding of signs, shapes and colours tends to entrap figures and portions of humanity with an archaic flavour. These figures appear to be crushed and sorely tried: distraught and disintegrated souls in search of their space. It is, therefore, a strongly human situation, capable of evoking a primeval history of symbolic significance.

The identifying image is concealed and then proposed to the gaze, evading winking impositions to knit up a sort of metaphysical intimacy with what surrounds it and with the observer.

The slender non-figure figures, which appear to emerge from the depths of the canvas, the strong tonal nuances and a natural inclination towards the creation of layers of matter give rise to a transfigured consistency and a lacerated polyphony. The result is a type of expressivity which becomes possible only by arriving at a mediation between tangible perceived reality and a timeless space.

This geography – in which delicate figures hug masses of compact colour – is what makes up Farid’s art. Such a deeply consistent and solid equilibrium in chromatic terms is achieved through the juxtaposition of admirably balanced sections of colour and constant comparison with the intensity of the light which appears to orient the tesserae of shifting gradations.

In the process of creating the work the artist checks that every element tends to and generates unity, suspending all possibility of temporary solution. Even a faint brushstroke, a light touch, or the adjustment of a balancing of percentages of light can upset the overall vision.

The violence of the pictorial gesture, of expressionist stamp, appears to be guided by just a few decisive, confident gestures devoid of second thoughts; in actual fact, the final result of the work is the fruit of a very lengthy creative process. The artist indeed addresses the canvas again and again, correcting and retouching tiny parts of colour, adding or removing small units of matter, such as gold or silver leaf, and overlaying techniques and materials.

Watching Ahmed Farid at work, we have the chance to perceive the secular sacredness with which he approaches his concept of making art: the three steps backwards which he frequently takes to get a larger view of the work encapsulate the entire cosmos of imagination and instinctive creation that characterises his production. It is only by achieving this short distance that we – using his key – can see the asymmetrical totems in movement, continents adrift and figures in search of an impossible definition.

Diego Faa is a Professor of Art History, Management of the Art System and Communication for Cultural Promotion based in Florence, Italy. Faa is also an arts curator and organiser of temporary exhibitions in galleries and public spaces as well as being a reference point for some artists’ archives. 

Ahmed Farid – Nahla Ink Artist of the Month (April 2020)

During these surreal times of Corona, artists and art institutions from around the world are learning to go purely online and virtual, making it the only viable platform for sharing.

On Nahla Ink, I am super happy to still be able to feature a MENA artist for the month of April, 2020. It is a privilege for me to introduce the works of the Egyptian artist Ahmed Farid that you will see on the Home Page for the duration of the month and that I will widely share on social media.

Biography courtesy of the artist.

Ahmed Farid was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1950 where he currently lives and works. He is an autodidact painter who trained privately in immersion apprenticeship in established artists’ studios.

With a degree in social sciences and an early career in marketing communication and business, Farid’s encounter with art came through extensive travels in the early seventies. The meeting with the historical western art movements and his attendance of the effervescent Egyptian cultural life results in a very personal artistic research.

The painting of Ahmed Farid is influenced by the gestures attributable to the abstract expressionist matrix that does not deny an atypical and barely visible form of representation but that sublimates it as a revelation of his own reality.

His works has been exhibited in private art galleries and public spaces in Egypt and Europe.

For more on Ahmed Farid: http://www.ahmedfaridart.com/

Ahmed Farid on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/anfarid/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Ahmed-Farid-Gallery-192352410810001/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/an_farid

Art And About Africa: Mapping the Contemporary African Art Scene

An ambitious online platform has recently been launched offering users easy access to the contemporary African art scene. The ‘Art And About Africa’ (AAAA) website allows people to connect directly with established and emerging artists, art spaces and key players. Hoping to provide a comprehensive overview of the continent’s artistic riches, it also features an interactive map to create bespoke country-specific art trips and travel itineraries that can be used in the future, pending on the state of international travel.

Conceived by art curator Lidija Khachatourian, she has been involved with African art through an earlier initiative known as the AKKA (A Kostic Khachatourian Art) Project. This latter, a gallery space based in Dubai (UAE) and Venice (Italy), has already organised over 20 exhibitions that have showcased over 30 artists from 11 African nations and produced the National Pavilion of Mozambique at the Venice Biennale 2019.

Of international note, AKKA has collaborated with established artists like Gonçalo Mabunda from Mozambique, Filipe Branquinho also from Mozamibique, and Cyrus Kabiru from Kenya; whilst giving a platform and exposure to emerging talent like Peteros Ndunde from Kenya, Rodrigo Mabunda from Mozambique, Teddy Mitchener from Kenya, to name a few.

Drawing upon her acquired networks and a vast wealth of further research, information and expertise, the new platform is designed to enhance artistic connections, empower the practitioners, unleash the local potential and inspire an international audience to support what is a truly vibrant and burgeoning industry.

The AAAA is currently open to partnerships with entities that can add value to the endeavour and in sharing and appreciating African art. Perhaps also now in the time of Corona, the art world can continue to create powerful connections and organise events through the virtual sphere.

Nahla Ink caught up with Khachatourian a few days after the official launch of the AAAA to learn more about her work background and share a bit more about the project. The launch took place on 20.02.2020.

Nahla Ink: Tell me a bit about your background?

Khachatourian: I was born in Serbia when Yugoslavia was still one country but then moved with my parents to Switzerland where I spent most of my young life. There in Lugano I finished my education and became a chartered accountant, a career I worked in for quite some time. It was also there where I met my husband and we became a family. In 2008, we moved to Dubai where we are still based.

Nahla Ink: How did you come to work in the African art world?

Khachatourian: I fell in love with art from the African continent after I came to Dubai and from Kristian, my partner in life and business, who had lived and worked in Liberia for five years and had acquired traditional African artefacts. At first we would travel to sub-Saharan countries for holidays where we would engage with local artists to explore the continent’s contemporary art scene.

To be honest, words cannot really describe the special vibe related to the African continent that hooks you from the start and never leaves you. By going to Africa, you learn to appreciate every single moment and you learn to focus on the ‘Now’.

Soon we began to build our own private collection and decided to take a step forward by opening the AKKA project. This was and still is a gallery and project space dedicated to promote, support and showcase the work of African artists and African culture. The aim is to give unique experience to visitors, not only by showing them great artworks but also stimulating all their senses by including other aspects, such as traditions, the culture, music, fashion, food and much more.

Nahla Ink: Why the AAAA platform?

The idea for the AAAA was more recently developed as I realised that finding information about art spaces and artists in terms of the African region was a bit challenging and information happened to be scattered between different websites and not always easy to access. I thought of designing the platform to collect and put together all the available data and make it a great resource for everyone who is looking to explore or engage with the creatives working on the continent.

Nahla Ink: Who is the project primarily aimed at and what is the best way of utilising it?

Khachatourian: The AAAA platform caters to art lovers of all types. If you run or own a museum or gallery, or if you are an art facilitator organizing exhibitions, biennials, fairs and other cultural events, you can connect with talent, promote your event, and expand your network internationally through the platform. It is also for passionate museum-goers, enthusiasts and collectors of contemporary art from Africa.

Significantly, also, it caters for new and emerging artists who wish to break into the art world by connecting them with the right people and ensuring they are reachable to a larger global audience, to established artists looking for new opportunities to help them expand and boost their visibility and network.

Unique to the AAAA, one can also generate tailored art itineraries by adding artists and galleries they would like to contact, visit, or follow to preferred lists. Users can then download their lists, which will include all of the most important contact details and locations.

Nahla Ink: Tell me more about the bespoke art tours and who are they for?

Khachatourian: We are still working on this with the aim to launch AAAA Travels later on this year. The plan is to offer assistance based on the needs of our clients, whether that is to connect them with a cultural facilitator or to design a bespoke art-hopping-holiday. The service will be available and can be adjusted to the needs of both an experienced traveller and somebody who is visiting for the first time.

Nahla Ink: Who else is involved with the AAAA project? Do you have working partners?

Khachatourian: The AAAA is privately funded and my team from the AKKA Project is also onboard. We are however looking for technical partners who can contribute to our concept and to the community we are creating. They could be media, travel agencies, content creators and others who would benefit the potential users who are looking to discover the art scene in Africa!

Nahla Ink: What is your future vision for the platform?

Khachatourian: I would love for the AAAA to become the tool that everyone uses when it comes to exploring the amazing art scene in Africa, a platform for exchange and connection between the art makers and the art-lovers.

For more on the AAAA: https://www.artandaboutafrica.com/

For more on the AKKA: http://www.akkaproject.com/

Nour Zantah – Nahla Ink Artist of the Month (March 2020)

March 2020 brings the works of the talented Syrian artist Nour Zantah to Nahla Ink, to coincide with her latest solo exhibition titled ‘ATAX|A’ that will take place at the P21 Gallery in London from 12-21 March.

Biography courtesy of the artist.

Nour Zantah is a London-based artist who was born in Homs, Syria in 1989. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Damascus in 2011 and a Master’s in International Contemporary Art & Design Practice from Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, Malaysia in 2014. Currently she is completing a PhD in Fine Arts at The University of Northampton, United Kingdom. She has exhibited widely in countries including Syria, Algeria, Jordan and the UK.

Following the start of the Syrian revolution, Zantah’s work came to focus on violence and war, with a particular interest in the aesthetic and expressive qualities that can be achieved while depicting aggression, as well as addressing the complex interactions and inspirations evident in how artists respond to modern media images of violence.

Referring to the medical term which means the loss of full control of bodily movements, ATAX|A will feature Zantah’s complex collages of images from the revolution, interspersed with her painting, offering an immersive and troubling experience that reveals the deep emotional and personal impacts of war. Transcending barriers of language, race, age and nationality, her work bears witness to the torments experienced by Syrians, both in war-torn Syria and in the diaspora.

Khan Shaykhun Chemical Attack (2017) Mixed Media on Canvas)

In reference to the painting named ‘Khan Shaykhun Chemical Attack’, Zantah has said: “The inspiration for this was a screenshot I took of a video that was published on YouTube on 4 April, 2017. The video showed sisters and brothers who had been killed in the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack that day. I incorporated a number of written statements into the painting’s over-arching composition which are related to the chaos of thoughts and imagination that was seething inside me. The flood of colours spills out onto the painting which begins with the word ‘war’ at the right-hand side and culminates with the word ‘theatre’ on the left-hand side of the painting.”

Untitled (2019) Mixed Media on Canvas

Sharing her thoughts also on the ‘Untitled’ piece above: “This painting represents the emotions associated with the revolutionary moment, reflecting its ups and downs, and growth and fading of enthusiasm. I sought to express the impact of the sounds of war on myself and other Syrians at the moment of isolation, loneliness, nostalgia, fear, loss of hope, despair. There is an expressive dimension that is almost akin to a musicality, both in terms of its composition and what it is seeking to communicate. There is also a harmony arising from the repetition of the parallel lines of the figures in this painting.”

The Echo (2019) Mixed Media on Canvas

Many more of Zantah’s pieces address further aspects of the Syrian war with telling names such as ‘Under the Rubble’, ‘The Echo’, ‘The Void’, ‘The Sniper’, ‘The Wounded’, ‘The Migrant’, ‘Siege of Homs’, ‘He’s Not Coming Back’ among others.

Solitude (2019) Mixed Media on Canvas
Under the Rubble (2019) Mixed Media on Canvas

To view Zantah’s powerful artworks in person, the ATAX|A exhibition, curated by Tarek Tuma, will be open from 12-21 March at the P21 Gallery.

For more on the exhibition: http://p21.gallery/exhibitions/exhibition-atax-a/

For more about the artist: https://www.nourzantah.com/

To follow the artist on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nourzantah/

MULOSIGE: A New Approach to World Literature & Celebrating Multilingualism In London

Guest Post: Dr Itzea Goikolea-Amiano and Sneha Alexander (MULOSIGE Team Members)

Founded at SOAS University of London, the MULOSIGE (short for Multilingual Locals and Significant Geographies) research project looks primarily at the experience of multilingual societies in the Horn of Africa, the Maghreb and North India. Instead of thinking about world literature as primarily written or translated into English, MULOSIGE looks at how written and oral literatures in different languages in these Global South regions interact with each other and circulate around the world.

Led by Professor Francesca Orsini and funded by the European Research Council, it began in 2017 and will run until December 2020.

A central part of the MULOSIGE project is the work done on the Maghreb region. The project emphasises the linguistic and cultural plurality of the North African region as informed by local forms and genres as well as the contacts with the Middle East, Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. MULOSIGE proposes a new approach to apprehend and valorise Maghrebi cultural heterogeneity beyond Euro-centric and Mashreq-centric approaches.

As well as hosting talks by scholars and academics, MULOSIGE also works with the local communities in London around multilingual issues. Since 2017, for example, we have collaborated with the Council of Islington in a project to introduce an Arabic collection into the N4 Library. We engaged with the Arabic-speaking people in the borough, who filled in a survey about their literary taste and interests. The books then provided followed the feedback of the local community, and that’s why this is a project for the communities but also by them!

Dr Itzea Goikolea-Amiano opening the Arabic Collection at the N4 Library.

While we tend to think of research as the primary activity influencing society, the engagement with the public is a very valuable source of insight for researchers. In fact, building the Arabic collection at the N4 Library confirmed the importance of the research in the MULOSIGE Maghrebi strand! Whereas the specialised Arabic bookshops found it easy to get hold of books printed in Beirut or Cairo, they found it difficult to acquire Maghrebi books. Such difficulty partly reflected the ‘peripheral’ positionality of North African literature vis-a-vis the cultural-cum-political centre in the Arabic-speaking world constituted by the Egypt-Lebanon axis. It also showed the importance of shedding light into the richness of Maghrebi literatures, as MULOSIGE does.

Another aspect to MULOSIGE is that we co-host the Multilingual London Festival – a free one-day event showcasing London’s multilingual literary talent. This festival will take place on the 25th April 2020 in partnership with the Museum of London. Its goal is to celebrate the vibrant mix of languages London-based writers use to weave real and imagined worlds. There will be free family-friendly workshops, children’s trails, poetry performances and writer’s talks – so save the date!

With the N4 Library, MULOSIGE is also running the Scheherazade Cultural Events programme; a series of talks and workshops centred around Arabic culture and literature. With free discussions on the Tunisian Revolution, Libyan satirical cartoons and feminist literature in Libya and the diaspora, as well as the revolutionary power of love in contemporary Arabic novels, these events are not to be missed!

Ultimately our purpose is to celebrate multilingualism in its various forms and increase Londoners’ knowledge of and accessibility to literatures from the Global South, and in languages other than English. London itself is home to over 300 languages and we can hear and see this expressed through stories, poetry, songs and books. Below are all the relevant links to help you engage with the project and utilise our current resources.

If you’re an Arabic speaker based in London, you can help provide Arabic books to your library by answering a survey at: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSd9h8sS2zmdZee3zHjrBy3_YncCJPf_KKNmWNMUoLPs3Ew_cQ/viewform

If you would like your local library to run a similar project, here’s a toolkit they can follow: http://mulosige.soas.ac.uk/activities/outreach/library-toolkit/

For more on Multilingual London Festival: http://mulosige.soas.ac.uk/multilingual-london-festival/

For more on the Scheherazade Cultural Events Programme: http://mulosige.soas.ac.uk/scheherezade-cultural-events-at-the-n4-library/

For more on the MULOSIGE project at SOAS: http://mulosige.soas.ac.uk/about/

‘Making The Postcard Women’s Imaginarium’: Subverting colonial depictions & Orientalist fantasies of women found circulating on old postcards

Guest Post: Salma Ahmad Caller

My curiosity was piqued on a summer’s day in 2018 when I was walking around Spitalfields Thursday Antiques market in London and my eye fell upon an old faded postcard on a stall amongst the bric-a-brac. When I picked it up and looked closer, it seemed to depict an Egyptian woman dating back to the early 1900s; and, on the back, it had a stamp with a note written in English about women like her being nice to look at but smelling bad!

Born in Iraq and growing up in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia before moving to the UK in 1990, I was always one with lots of questions and looking for answers. My Egyptian father and English mother have often been the starting point for my work as an artist exploring identity. Add to that my paternal grandmother was Ottoman Turkish whilst the Egyptian family possibly originated from Tunisia, and before that Islamic Spain.

With this background, I have for years been intrigued by the inherent relationships, power structures and connections that bind my past; and, importantly, the colonial link between Egypt and Britain that had a big impact on my parents’ lives and so on my life too. The bigger narratives always have deeply personal implications.

That day I didn’t know anything about the history of what I was holding, I simply assumed that the woman shown was Egyptian. But I began researching all I could about the ‘colonial postcard’ and was soon dismayed and horrified. The featured women could potentially be from anywhere, they may even have been European models dressed up; but, mostly, they were locals often coerced or paid to be draped in strange assemblages of clothing and jewellery, the stuff of Orientalist imaginings.

Worse was the discovery of the exploitation, subjugation and violence behind the constructed images of the women on these postcards from the Middle East and North Africa. Posted in the millions, possibly billions, images taken in the 1800s were still circulating around Europe into the1950s or even 1970s. I now have my own large collection of Egyptian colonial postcards of women that has led me to further explore the histories of the Nubians, the Ghawazee, Hungarian Egyptians, Turkish, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Armenians and Nigerians.

My search led me to learn more about what constructs the identity of these women and where they may have come from. I have now looked through hundreds of postcards from all over the MENA region as well as from Southwest Asia and accumulated a library of books relating to this troubling and fascinating historical document, which is not in fact showing any kind of truth.

I founded ‘Making The Postcard Women’s Imaginarium’ project in August 2018 and so began Phase I of the project. I got in touch with other women artists as well as writers, poets, academics and thinkers who were all exploring identity within the context of the complex relationship between the East and West. I was keen to meet people with backgrounds that connected them to Britain and Europe and also to those places with colonial histories. I wanted it to be passionate and personal for each member.

As a group we began to look for ways to interrogate the painful histories behind the postcard women, whilst finding ways to get beyond simply seeing them as subjugated victims of a vast colonial project based on constructing racial hierarchies and imaginary Oriental Others. We needed to avoid further misrepresentation if we were to publicly share these postcards and prevent viewers from falling into the trap of experiencing them yet again as a ‘type’ of Eastern female posing as simpering, demure, over-sexualised, ‘exotic’, ‘primitive’, trapped in a quaint time warp, or malleable and ‘giving’ herself over to her captor, the colonial photographer.

That is why we all decided not to show the postcard women directly in our work without some kind of artistic mediation or intervention. Each woman depicted on a postcard has an amazing presence that somehow reaches out beyond the attempts to portray her in a certain way and we were each responding to that in our own way.

Phase I ended with a successful exhibition at Willesden Gallery in North London in October 2019, a very multicultural place to start our journey. As curator I wanted to have the whispering and murmuring of women’s voices haunting our art works, the photographs and the display cases of research material and postcards; as well as a play of light and shadow, projections and sound overlaying the reception and experience of the installations.

This year is Phase II of the Imaginarium project and I am delighted to collaborate with the British-Libyan architect and Arts curator Najlaa El-Ageli and the well-known British-Iranian artist Afsoon, to bring forth another exhibition.

El-Ageli brings a wealth of experience as she has worked closely with many artists from Libya and the wider MENA region and hosted exhibitions with highly respected international arts institutions. Her extensive multifaceted knowledge and rigorous interrogation of what it means to live with a colonised past and its impact on the present and future will bring a rich added perspective.

Afsoon has been with me from the start, helping to mould and shape the project and has been collecting postcards for many years. She sees everything from a unique creative angle and has helped to develop ways to open up cross-cultural dialogue and understanding. Her wit and wisdom cut through bias and prejudice. London based, Afsoon has lived and travelled the world and brings a spirit of openness into her art practice and storytelling.

Phase II is very exciting as we now have quite a number of artists and thinkers from Libya, Algeria and Tunisia, possibly Sudan and Morocco, as well as some amazing people from Phase I, who are Turkish, Irish, Spanish, Iranian and Egyptian. Once we finalise the group we will be looking for suitable venues and hosts.

The key aims are the same but we are now delving more deeply into how personal cultural stories, memories and histories of women are handed down to us. It is within this space that we often find the most transgressive, contradictory and marginalised ways of being and seeing that have been left out of mainstream narratives. The lineages of women have the greatest power to disrupt both colonial and patriarchal strongholds of knowledge and meaning making.

Ultimately, we hope to open dialogue and ask difficult questions. An important part of the project is the discussion blog that I facilitate online via Facebook that ranges over topics of Orientalism, Colonialism, Empire, Race, Decolonisation and Representations of Others. This can help in understanding mechanisms of how we have been shaped and how women came to be trapped in a postcard. But those women were not theories or texts. We are not theories or texts.

Going into the future, the aim is to grow in reach and presence, with each stage having different curators exploring new directions and dimensions. I like the idea of building a web of women working to radically change the narratives, weaving living connections between the postcard women and the project women, and bringing the past into the present.

As for that original postcard, I made into an artwork and soaked the paper with my Oud perfume…

To connect with ‘Making The Postcard Women’s Imaginarium’ Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/476614479745226/

Salma Ahmad Caller is a British-Egyptian artist whose practice involves creating an imagery of the narratives of body that have shaped her own body and identity across profound cultural divides. It is an investigation of the painful and contradictory mythologies surrounding the female body, processes of exoticization, and the legacy of colonialism as a cross-generational transmission of ideas, traumas, bodies and misconceptions. Her work is informed by a Masters in Art History and Theory, having studied medicine, and teaching cross-cultural perspectives at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

For more: https://www.salmaahmadcaller.com/

 

In Conversation With Patrick Altes: The French-Algerian Artist Advocates‘Tolerance’ In His Latest UK Solo

Patrick Altes is a UK-based French-Algerian artist with a highly nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the word ‘Tolerance’, the title for his latest solo exhibition currently taking place at Gerald Moore Gallery in South East London. Mostly, he uses the word in the geopolitical context to refer to the types of relationships that can be forged between different peoples, nations and civilisations; and, also, looking at the concept as an ethical value to be cultivated, akin to compassion and empathy or the golden rule to treat others as one would wish to be treated.

Advocating and rooting for tolerance Altes challenges narratives that demean, debase or dehumanise ‘the other’ and bravely calls out some of the underlying racism, bigotry, resentment and intolerance that exist in our splintered world today. In so doing, he questions Eurocentric post-colonial discourse, feuding between religions, the worrying current trends towards far right politics and nationalism in Europe and the United States, the deep divisions that have been created by Brexit in the UK as well as tackling the negative attitudes towards migrants.

Born in Oran, Algeria in 1957 into a family of French-Spanish descent – they had lived in Algeria for three generations before leaving just prior to independence in 1962 – Altes was always keen to examine the complex and sensitive relationship between the country of his birth and that of France, the country in which he grew up. Not content with the view that excused French dominance and didn’t acknowledge the wrongs that were wrought upon the colonised people, he points out that there are consequences to that historical chapter that need heeding in order to mitigate the existing tensions between the two people.

In conversation with Nahla Ink, Altes said: “The French invaded Algeria for 130 years and did some pretty terrible things there, that were definitely not right; but, at the end of the day, we share a common history and common language that can be used to bring the countries together. It is important to me that this kind of antagonism between France and Algeria stops; and I quite like the idea of mending the links and building bridges between them.”

Another life experience that hugely influenced Altes was his stay in South Africa between 1981-1983. It was at the height of apartheid and he was teaching French in the University of Fort Hare, where a number of African National Congress members had gone to do their studies, including Govan Mbeki, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela.

Altes: “It was a hot place of radicalism and an eye opener. I was a bit of a political person before, but this experience was something that showed me that politics really is the fabric of society and the fabric of life that you can’t live without. It is why I became interested in the plight of people. I also met many artists in SA and realised I enjoyed being in their company.”

Originally self-taught as an artist Altes then spent six years in Ecuador before returning to France and taking his training further. He enrolled in external life drawing classes of the Beaux Arts in Toulouse and undertook etching workshops for a couple of years, before coming to the UK in 2006 to take an MA in Fine Arts at the University of Brighton. Most recently, in 2012, Altes completed an Leverhulme Trust Arts residency at the University of Portsmouth. He is now based in St Leonards-on-Sea in Hastings where he has been living for the past seven years.

Typically exploring themes of identity, history and politics, Altes said: “You always put something of yourself in your work, it is about you and how you relate to the world. To me, art is a dialogue with people and a way of talking about identity, in the sense that it gives me an idea of where I stand in terms of my work and position in life, society, my political ideas and social ideas. It is almost like a manifesto all the time but not really at the same time.”

‘Tolerance’ Paintings & Signature Technique

Truly a grand solo show, there are altogether 70-plus pieces displayed on the walls over the two floors at the gallery. Some works date back to 2004, whilst others have been newly created, many specifically for the exhibition. They have been organised so that the ground level gallery features paintings and the top level holds the digital prints and collages.

One set of paintings that stands out due to their dark-heavy tones and disturbing imagery, tackles the subject of the Second Gulf War in 2003 and how the US channelled cleverly edited news commercials that became “almost pleasurable to watch” but completely covered up the cost of war on the Iraqis and the horrors they endured. One sees soldiers near to skulls and defaced humans coming out of TV monitors, relaying the artist’s take on the dangers of American war propaganda.

Coming close up to the works, one also discovers Altes’s signature layering technique. Beginning with the notion that the canvas is more like a wall, he can then write on it, scratch it, blend it with paper or paint over it. One good example is ‘The Hanging Gardens of England’, a three piece set where one can decipher the graffiti in the background- with the words ‘democracy’, ‘tolerance’, ‘freedom’ and ‘Stephen Lawrence’ – in contrast to the top painted image of pretty little flowers in the British flag colours of white, red and blue.

About these, Altes said: “I created something similar to an earlier work called ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ that first challenged post-colonial narratives with a bit of irony. In this set you start with the graffiti that refers to Stephen Lawrence who was murdered in nearby Eltham in 1993 and then you see the overlaid pictures with the flowers. It is a way to express how sometimes you can hide underneath beauty and you can hide the reality that is a bit less beautiful.”

He also explained: “We live in polarised times where nationalism is becoming   strong again and I believe it is time for people to take a step back and realise that we are all living on one planet and that the main problems are maybe not between nations but at the global level and our survival on the planet. We need to talk to each other regardless of differences of opinion.

“We have seen this with Brexit too, as the Brexiteers hate the Remainers and vice versa. At the end of the day, England will go one way or another but we will still be living in the same country. The idea is not to agree on everything but to listen to the other person, agree to disagree but have both opinions expressed. If we then go beyond that, the highest form of tolerance is love!”

Distinctive of the artist’s practice too are his roughly drawn figures that represent human beings and other recurring shapes like that of fish, pelicans and snakes. About these playful bodies and the animals, he said: “These are my way of representing people in all their quirks and differences, and yet showing we are all the same. They relate to the archetypical shapes that I have in my mind and conscience.”

Another significant group of paintings have been inspired by the hopscotch children’s game, offering a message about destiny. With a reference to the artist’s Catholic upbringing – the state of always being between earth, heaven and purgatory – and a line that signifies a mysterious link between the conscious and the unconscious, fate is seen to be beyond one’s power and control; wherein the weight of one’s family and country of birth, for example, influence who we become and what we might believe in.

 

On the other hand, the hopscotch works as a metaphor for the cultivation of higher values and the potential to evolve beyond basic human instincts – that are usually tribal, hating, distrustful of others and seeing the world as the enemy to be feared – to acquire a higher state of being.

Digital Prints & ‘The Ultimate Mediation’

Upstairs the digital prints and collages reflect a unity in terms of colours and many seem to elaborate on the theme of the futility of conflict or the uselessness of holding grudges and resentments, as humanity must change and progress over the millennia. It is to point out also that empires, no matter how powerful or menacing, must all come and go or rise and then fall.

In ‘Ultimate Mediation’, for example, Altes makes a reference to the Mexican and Druid tradition of the ‘Day of the Dead’ and employs the icons of the three Abrahamic faiths of the cross, star of David and Muslim crescent. He said: “I quite like the idea that for one day, the spiritual world and the real world mix together. So whilst we think about the conflict of religions, this kind of succession of life and death or the cycle of life and death from the beginning of time is probably something more important.

“I am trying to also talk about how these conflicts are actually not that important if you look at the bigger picture. Monotheistic religions -whether Catholic, Jewish or Muslim – are a relatively recent phenomenon and in view of what humanity has been through, they are not insignificant, but they don’t deserve to be fought over; in the sense that they should be bringing love and harmony rather than anything else.”

Another wall considers the concept of ‘fundamental British values’ with the display of colourful amateur drawings made – not by Altes but by vocational students at the East Sussex College in Eastbourne and the East Sussex College in Hastings. These were the interesting result of workshops recently conducted by Altes to help the schools fulfil their Ofsted obligations to familiarise the students with the meaning of these terms.

 

He said: “These values for me mean the respect for democracy, respect for personal freedom, right to your own sexuality, right to your own religion or absence of religion, and tolerance. I would in fact rather have them be called fundamental human values.”

The Installations: On Migration & Crossings

Last but not least, two powerful installations deal with the current plight of the African migrants who have been crossing the seas and enduring suicidal journeys in the faint hope of landing on European shores. One is set up poignantly with uprooted dead trees, blood stained trunks and broken branches coming out of travel cases, with little delicate potted green palms trees placed nearby.

On this piece, Altes said: “Behind the word ‘migrants’ are real people who often don’t want to come to England or France, but have been driven by circumstances beyond their decision level. If anything they have been cut off from their environment and the uprooting is a bloody and dangerous process. Whilst the little plants here symbolise that once people have moved to a new place, they try to recreate, however fragile this is, a life of their own; and that, by so doing, they contribute to their host country.”

Whilst the second installation called ‘The Crossing’ features a rudderless wooden boat that looks more like a raft made out of driftwood. Placed in the middle of an Africa (that is represented by a wooden statue) and a Britain (represented by a teapot painted with the Union Jack), it seems to be lost at sea and unable to move in any one direction. And around this too are little clay pots filled with different coloured soils which Altes has collected throughout his travels.

Altes: “I’ve tried to show that the people on these boats don’t choose the trip in the way that you might choose to go to France tomorrow for a visit. There is something a bit more primal and more difficult for them, as they can end up as floating and drowning bodies. Again the clay pots show how easily things can break and crumble whereas the soil represents the little something that one may find essential to take on a long journey as a reminder of home.”

In terms of the wider conversation on migration, Altes pointed out: “The world is founded on migration as we can trace the origin of humanity to Eastern Africa. Migration I believe can be seen either as a threat to identity or as a way to enrich identity; and, actually, you fear what you don’t know. So once you are exposed to the other, the fear disappears and you realise you are not that different; and, indeed, that the real differences that exist are quite interesting and make life better.”

The Fragile Flower

Marking the end of our interview, I asked Altes what would be the main message he would like for people to take with them when they come and visit. He robustly replied: “Tolerance to me is a fragile flower that has to be tended, cherished and exercised; in the sense that you have to be tolerant, otherwise there is the danger that it can decrease or even disappear. So we have to be vigilant about that.

“Also, I have created works that are ambiguous in nature so that people can superimpose their own narrative on the one I intended, either very consciously or not so consciously!”

Curated by Janet Rady Fine Art and supported by the Arts Council, ‘Tolerance’ is on until 25 January, 2020 at Gerald Moore Gallery, Mottingham Lane, London SE9 4RW.

Encompassing outreach and public engagement activities, school pupils and the public will be encouraged to reflect on values and ideas, bringing concepts such as the rule of law, diversity, democracy and individual liberty into the conversation.

There will also be a free panel discussion on 11 January 2020 at 2pm on ‘Tolerance, Migration and Identity’ with the artist Patrick Altes, writer and broadcaster Nadene Ghouri and writer and black British historian S I Martin.

For more on Patrick Altes: http://patrickaltes.com/

For more on Janet Rady Fine Art: https://www.janetradyfineart.com/

For more on Gerald Moore Gallery: https://geraldmooregallery.org/

Arab Cinema Shines Bright

MENA Films at the 63rd BFI London Film Festival (LFF)

Guest Post: Dr Khalid Ali

Once again London succeeded in hosting a vibrant celebration of world cinema. From around the globe, filmmakers from 75 countries presented their works at this year’s BFI London Film Festival that took place 2-13 October. Bringing new voices beside auteur talent, the festival engaged as always with pressing universal themes. Tricia Tuttle, Director of the Festival commented: ‘’Like all good art, cinema helps us make sense of the world we live in’’.

The diversity of Arab cinema this year was utterly remarkable with seven films showing in the Debate, Laugh, Dare and Create sections of the festival, in addition to two Saudi films in competition. Most of the films came lauded with praise and accolades from previous film festivals; and, it was a great opportunity for Londoners to treat themselves to one, two or more films from the best of what is coming out of the MENA region.

It was heart-warming to see that from the nine films that two were Saudi productions made by women directors at the top of their game. The first was Haifa Al Mansour’s ‘The Perfect Candidate’ in the official competition, and Shahad Ameen’s debut film ‘Scales’ in the first feature competition. Both films featured strong female protagonists fighting entrenched prejudices in their society.

The Perfect Candidate (Haifaa Al Mansour)

 

 

 

 

 

Dr Maryam in the former is the strong-willed doctor practising in a local hospital who faces blatant gender-discrimination from an older male patient who prefers to see a male doctor. Stopped at the airport from travelling when her permit expired, starts a series of unusual events that lead to Maryam putting her name down as a candidate for the local council elections.

One fact however that Maryam tries to hide is that her deceased mother was a wedding singer; and, here, lovers of classic Egyptian cinema will spot a connection between Dr Maryam and Zuzu, the bright University student fighting off stigma and discrimination because of her mother’s profession as an entertainer in 1970s Cairo in Hassan Al Imam’s ‘Take Care of Zuzu’.

In ‘Scales’ Hayat is a 12-year old girl born in a mystical fishing village where families have to sacrifice one girl to the sea to appease the ‘sea monsters’. Shot in luminous monochrome as a magical fable, Ameen challenges established beliefs and practises treating women as second-class citizens. Winning the ‘Verona Award’ for films with innovative vision, Ameen is an emerging talent to look out for.

Scales (Shahad Ameen)

Tunisia led with no less than three films. Hinde Boujemaa’s debut feature ‘Noura’s Dream’ stars Hend Sabri as a mother standing up to her husband’s oppression. Noura is neither presented as a victim nor as an angel; she is a human being struggling with raising three children as a single mother, and a woman with a desire for love and kindness. Sabri won the best actress award for her performance at El Gouna Film Festival.

Addressing women’s status in Tunisian law and social standing, Boujemaa skilfully analyses through Noura’s dilemma the choice between life as an obedient wife or as an independent but tarnished woman. She touches upon double standards, the moral decline of those in public office and prevalent corruption with a clear vision. Bearing in mind that Tunisian law treats women and men equally when it comes to sentencing in crimes of passion.

Noura’s Dream (Hinde Boujemaa)

‘Tlamess’ by Ala Eddine Slim offers an enigmatic story that is described by the director as a tale of “a man and a woman living in symbiosis with nature”. ‘S’ is a soldier running away from the army when he meets a mysterious woman called ‘F’ in a woodland. They come to bond through unspoken language and fight off forces of nature including a baby dinosaur. Perplexing as it seems, this film is a visually rewarding extravaganza pulsating to the beat of a haunting musical score from Oiseaux Tempete.

The third Tunisian offering was ‘A Son’ by Mehdi M Barsaoui that won its lead actor Sami Bouajila the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival. It follows a family’s worst nightmare after their son is shot and left seriously ill in hospital in desperate need for an urgent liver transplant. Finding a liver donor with a matching blood group becomes a fateful event as it unravels long hidden secrets about the son’s identity.

A Son (Mehdi M Barsaoui)

The victory of the recent Sudanese revolution and overturning of the military regime is echoed in Suhaib Gasemelbari’s documentary film ‘Talking About Trees’ which won the Berlin Film Festival Best Documentary and Audience Awards. Gasemelbari follows four veteran Sudanese filmmakers (Manar Al Hiloo, Ibrahim Shaddad, El Tayeb Mahdi, and Suleiman El Nour) in their attempts to reopen a cinema and restore film-viewing culture in a hostile political environment. All four are cinephiles bound by long-term friendship and hope that one day Sudan will pack cinemas as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s.

Talking About Trees (Suhaib Gasmelbari)

‘The Cave’ by Feras Fayyad was Syria’s entry this year. It is a follow up to his 2017 award winning film ‘Last Men In Aleppo’. Set in a secret hospital in Ghouta, the film champions defiant doctors led by Dr Amani and hospital staff in saving the lives of wounded civilians while surviving the most dangerous of chemical attacks and bombings. Set in a claustrophobic underground setting, the film compels the viewer to denounce the humanitarian crisis facing the country.

Elia Suleiman returns to his favourite subject of exploring Palestinian refugees’ plight in his latest film ‘It Must Be Heaven’. In this follow up to ‘The Time That Remains’ (2009), Suleiman sets the scene in Paris and New York analysing themes of displacement and alienation.

Last but not least, ‘The Unknown Saint’ by Alaa Eddine Aljem represented Moroccan cinema; a black comedy where a criminal is trying to recover a hidden loot now buried under a holy temple. The village people seek ‘cure, happiness and wish-fulfilment’ by offering money and prayers to the holy saint. While the village doctor – who is infuriated by the people’s ignorance and simplistic belief in the power of an unknown’ person – soon despairs and becomes one of the believers.

The Unknown Saint (Alaa Eddine Aljem)

Watching the diversity of Arab cinema at the LFF, I was reassured that Arab voices and stories are no longer marginalised or forgotten. From women fighting against oppression, to film veterans trying to revive a nation’s love for film, to ordinary people affected by violent extremist practices, Arabs are well and truly represented when it comes to the big silver screen in 2019.

Dr Khalid Ali is a Senior Lecturer in Geriatrics and Stroke Medicine at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, a Film and Media correspondent for Medical Humanities Journal, author of ‘The Cinema Clinic: Reflections on Film and Medicine’ and Co-Founder of Egypt Medfest, an artistic, cultural, humanitarian and medically themed educational film forum.

The Aga Khan Centre Launches A New Gallery With ‘At The Corner of A Dream’ Exhibition, Showing the Works of Lebanese-Egyptian Artist Bahia Shehab

Guest Post: Annie Carpenter

A haven for education, knowledge, cultural exchange and insight into Muslim civilisations, The Aga Khan Centre is ideally located in London’s Kings Cross area. Opened in September 2018, it is comprised of three organisations that work together to bridge the gap in the understanding of Muslim cultures and connecting the public to global development issues. These three organisations are: The Aga Khan Foundation, The Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC), and The Institute of Ismaili Studies.

Housed in an impressive building that was specifically designed by renowned Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, it incorporates a collection of beautiful gardens, courtyards and terraces that provide an insight into the diversity and influence of Islamic landscape design. The entire structure represents openness, dialogue and respect for differing viewpoints; and, offers a tranquil environment for scholars, students and staff alike to share ideas and work together.

Proudly adding to its functions and overall reach, the Aga Khan Centre has just launched a new space within the building – on the ground floor – to serve as an art gallery. Hosting a changing programme of exhibitions, it hopes to create an even better understanding of Islam and Muslim cultures, past and present, from an artistic viewpoint.

Its inaugural show, titled ‘At the Corner of a Dream’, offers the first UK solo presentation of the Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab, whose work first came into global view when she used street art as an act of protest during the Arab Spring of 2011.

Comprised of five digital artworks produced by Shehab in 2019 and commissioned by AKU-ISMC, they relate to the poetry murals she originally painted in four different cities (Cairo, New York, Beirut and Marrakesh) as well as on the Greek island of Cephalonia. Inspired by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) – the show’s title is a line from one of his poems – she uses lines from his Arabic verse to tell the world that ideas cannot be killed and to show that humankind is united in its struggle against oppression and dictatorship.

Those Who Have No Land Have No Sea, 2019

In the films, therefore, each location corresponds to sites where Shehab created a mural. Viewing her walls as meeting points and conversation starters, she also raises the curiosity of passers-by, prompting them to ask about the stories behind the writing and encouraging them to stop and ask how they can tackle injustice in their own country, or how they can work for equality and help others live in a better world.

In one titled ‘We Love Life’, for example, Shehab reflects on Darwish’s stanza that reads “We love life if we had access to it”. It depicts a wedding in four different settings. In the first, the couple are seen in a tuk-tuk (a transportation bike used in informal housing areas in Cairo); in the second, they are seated in their wedding chairs on the street in front of a local butcher shop; in the third they are seen in a destroyed house and, finally, they sit on thrones with the city of the dead in the background. The film plays on the idea of hope and the ability to dream visualising something as joyous as a wedding to reflect a very morbid reality where even hope becomes impossible.

We Love Life, 2019 HD video still, 2019

The films are presented in an immersive environment across four screens creating a 360° display in which each image is seamlessly adjoined. Alongside, the show includes a site-specific calligraffiti stencil wall work and two vitrines containing paraphernalia relating to her artistic practice.

Commenting on the show, Curator Esen Kaya said: ‘We are honoured to be launching our new Gallery with an exhibition by Bahia Shehab. Shehab’s striking and stylized work provides an opportunity for us to think about some of the issues happening across the world today. The work is both poetic and stimulating as she encourages us to think about the lives of others, whilst considering our own.”

Commissioned by the AKU-ISMC, the exhibition marks the publication of a book of the same name on Shehab’s poetry-based work, published by Gingko Press. It also follows the unveiling of a major 30-metre mural called ‘We Will Not Repent’, created for Lincoln University in August 2019.

The exhibition is on view at the Aga Khan Centre Gallery from the 27 September – 5 January 2020.

Further information: https://www.agakhancentre.org.uk/gallery/

You can purchase Bahia’s new publication, ‘At the Corner of a Dream. A Journey of Resistance & Revolution: The Street Art of Bahia Shehab’ here: https://www.gingko.org.uk/title/at-the-corner-of-a-dream/

Note: Guest writer Annie Carpenter is a London-based freelance writer with a particular focus on art and photography. She writes for The London Magazine, Widewalls and Medium, among others.